What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness
When Allen Lane produced the popular paperback in 1934, his breakthrough was not in the creation of the paperback — they had had been around in various, if poor quality, formats for a number of years. His innovation was recognizing a novel context in which people were reading, or wanting to read.
Lane’s other invention, alongside the cheap, quality paperback, was the Penguincubator, first installed outside Henderson’s (the “Bomb Shop”) at 66 Charing Cross Road, which signaled his intention to take the book beyond the library and the traditional bookstore, into railway stations, chain stores and onto the streets.
In the Penguincubator we see several desires converge: affordable books, non-traditional distribution, awareness of context, and a quiet radicalism. And it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to see how these apply now.
Amazon’s Kindle Store, Apple’s iBooks platform, and Google Books are the Penguincubators of the new era — and the only distress is that publishers have allowed the distributors to seize the higher ground.
Meanwhile, publishers continue to focus on formats — flat e-books versus enhanced applications, windowed release schedules to protect the paper book — and the legal infighting of pricing models, electronic rights and digitization.
Publishers know very little about the habits and practices of their readers, and they impinge on this time very little, leaving much of the work to the retailers and distributors. Amazon and Apple understand experience design, and they know more about our customers than we do; readers’ experience with our product is mediated and controlled by forces beyond ours.Those that are most perceived as the greatest threat to publishing — the tech companies — are not a threat here: Amazon is an infrastructure company, Apple a technology and design company, Google is a search engine. None of them will be able to replicate publishers’ passion for books. But to take advantage of this, publishers need to look beyond Industrial Revolution-era definitions of what they do, beyond one-size-fits-all definitions of our product, and beyond publicity-grabbing, short-term management and imprint rearrangements that have nothing to do with readers’ demands. In short, we need to walk down that platform with Allen Lane again, take a long look at where and how people are reading, and help them to find a good book.
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